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Bypass Mayhem

A North Coast reporter faces eight years in jail. Was he being unethical, or simply doing his job?



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"For years, Caltrans has claimed the reason they have to have a four-lane [bypass] is because Federal Highways said so," Estabrook says. "It was a powerful statement, and it was completely false. There was no merit to it, nothing to support it.

"This is an agency that does whatever it wants without any regulation," he adds. "It's completely out of control."

Caltrans representative Phil Frisbie Jr. says it's not that simple. While the FHWA doesn't bind each project to a particular Level of Service, it does bind state and local agencies to figure out the most efficient throughway for a given area, and to work with that. And though that's a bit less direct than the answer given to Evans, a trail of planning documents does back it up. Somewhat.

The original LOS concept can be traced back to a regional transportation plan, which states that traffic flow in Mendocino County should have a baseline of LOS D, not C. The man who wrote this local plan is Phil Dow, the head of the Mendocino Council of Governments.

"It means we don't want traffic to get any worse than that," Dow says, contesting opponents' point that this further exemplifies mislabeling of facts.

ANY MEANS NECESSARY The scene of Parrish's stitcher-sit in June. - STEVE EBERHARD
  • Steve Eberhard
  • ANY MEANS NECESSARY The scene of Parrish's stitcher-sit in June.

Dow and Frisbie Jr. both call the project's opponents a vocal minority. Both point to the fact that Caltrans has planned a bypass for Willits since the 1950s, and an EIR—with an extensive public process—was certified in 2006. And Frisbie Jr. paints a picture of near-unanimous support for the four-lane freeway before construction began. He recalls a Caltrans open house in 2007, where, he says 210 people showed up and only two voiced any opposition at all. But public comments in the EIR show a community that's much more deeply divided, split nearly down the middle between desire for a freeway and desire for a throughway less expensive and ruinous than the one proposed.

More recently, a board of supervisors meeting on March 26 featured hours of public comment. Fifty-nine speakers voiced opposition to the bypass. Only one, Phil Dow, spoke up to defend it.

In the pages of the rabblerousing AVA, meanwhile, Parrish was connecting a constellation of dots.

A large portion of the project's funding—$136 million—comes from California's Proposition 1B, which was passed by voters in 2006 to relieve congested streets. But in 2007, the $177 million that had been favored for Willits by the California Transportation Commission was pulled to use for more urban areas across the state; the reason given was that Willits, with a population of roughly 5,000, was just too small to justify that much in funding. Planners scrambled for alternatives and came up with some less expensive options, including a two-lane bypass. A county supervisor, John Pinches, was quoted in the Ukiah Daily Journal at the time saying that although it wasn't the "Cadillac" freeway everyone wanted, it would relieve congestion.

The difference between 2007 and 2013, Parrish reported, was Congressman Mike Thompson, who until redistricting took effect in January 2013 represented the region. Thompson, backed heavily by Building Trades Union campaign money, announced in a 2011 press release: "Bringing the Willits Bypass to completion is a top priority."

To Parrish, the bypass exemplified a system bound to endless, senseless growth—motivated at its financial core to lay concrete, create jobs and pave the last green expanses of the American West. In the IWW-stamped pages of the AVA, his writing utilizes a sharp, macroscopic lens to show regional events in their global context. This was no different. "The Insanity of the Willits Bypass" winds a snaking narrative through history and philosophy, touching on the "freeway construction craze" of the Eisenhower administration, the mass suburbanization that ensued and its terrifying consequences.

"Caltrans is a powerful bureaucracy," he tells me when we speak. "Its bias is toward building the biggest, most expensive project it can."

Dow, mired in planning details for the freeway for decades, says accusations like this are downright conspiratorial.

"They come up with all these bits and pieces like 'Level of Service' that are technical and they don't understand," Dow says of the project's vocal opponents. "They can think whatever they want. It was all done out in the open."

But a look at the bypass' core numbers does reveal a project bound to outdated figures—figures that rely on unsubstantiated growth. In the late '90s, Caltrans projected steady upticks for traffic in California's northern counties, and used them to plan for the bypass. And yet, Estabrook points out, there's little to support this. The populations of Mendocino and Humboldt counties have grown very little since this data was gathered—0.3 percent and 0.5 percent per year, respectively—and Willits' population has actually declined. Meanwhile, traffic counts from Caltrans show that interregional traffic passing through Willits has either stayed flat or declined in the last 10 years.

B&W Flyers protesting the project recall Mendocino County's activist heritage.
  • B&W Flyers protesting the project recall Mendocino County's activist heritage.

According to a study recorded in 2000, roughly 70 percent of the traffic clogging 101 at Willits' entrance is locally bound. The bypass will funnel some traffic off the street at its entrance south of this existing bottleneck, but much of it will remain. ABC's KGO-TV did an in-depth report on this in August, viewing Caltrans traffic cams north of Willits to assess the number of cars traveling through, up the coast. The news team watched the cams for two months. Consistently, they showed cars and trucks speeding by on an almost empty road.

In a farcical twist, Redwood Valley resident Julia Frech in July started searching for similar bypass propositions around the state. She found one four-lane diversion in the planning stages for Hinkley, the tiny town west of Barstow made famous by the movie Erin Brockovich. Caltrans projects a high growth rate for the region—which includes the surrounding county—and cites safety factors and delays associated with California State Route-58 passing through town.

But the groundwater in Hinkley is contaminated with chromium-6—a plume of toxic, cancerous waste dumped by PG&E spreading two and half miles wide. As part of a settlement, PG&E is buying the homes of residents who wish to leave. KQED's California Report visited the two-street town earlier this year. Homes were boarded up, lawns were dead, and, due to the mass exodus, the local school was about to close.

And yet a $100 million bypass is planned. Soon cars will fly down a four-lane freeway through the flat yellow desert, and Hinkley will be gone.

Parrish has a long history of advocacy journalism, but his work with the bypass blends the two more directly than ever before—covering his wick drain sit in the paper and advocating for the facts he covered weekly. He's aware that his actions may have harmed his credibility.

"For some people, I've crossed a line and they have less respect for my written word," he says. "But when regulatory, electoral politics fail and special interests control politicians and you have all these alliances that have been dramatically at play with the bypass, then the system isn't going to do the sane or reasonable thing. Then direct action is the only sane or reasonable thing to do. In this case, writing isn't enough."

So he did this instead: scaled a giant blue tower, hung a banner, drank some water, ate granola bars, retreated into a sleeping bag when it rained and fasted when his supplies ran low. All menial tasks, but as he would later write in the AVA, they were satisfying. Because of him, only one drill could be used. The valley was being stitched with half as many drains.

When he was finally brought down after 11 days, he was charged with 16 misdemeanors. He requested a juried trial, to start in November. His maximum sentence is eight years.

Still, he hasn't given up. His strategy is bombastic and radical as his prose, putting himself at the center of conflict once again.

"I want to use the trial as a way to bring more scrutiny to the project," he says of Caltrans. "I want to be allowed to present evidence against them in court."

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